By Jessica Shouse
Rocky Mountain National Park
Nestled in the quaint mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado, this park holds a very special place in my heart. I am blessed to live only about an hour away and also to have a job that takes me into town frequently. The beauty and splendor of Rocky’s peaks, waterfalls and lakes is unmatched. Rocky boasts breathtaking views of the Continental Divide and the famous Long’s Peak, which can be seen throughout the park. At over 12,000 ft above sea level, Rocky is famous for the highest, continuous paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road. Rocky is also home to an abundance of wildlife including several species of birds, marmots, foxes, deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, mountain lions and bears. Hiking hundreds and hundreds of miles on her trials has helped me to overcome anxiety, the trauma of having a son with some complex medical needs and the general stresses of everyday life. It is where I go to find peace and seek solitude. The best way for me to recharge my soul.
Established in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park is the 3rd most visited National Park in the United States, with an average of 4.5 million visitors per year. Most of those visitors come to the Estes Park Valley between the summer months of June and September. It is not uncommon for parking lots at trailheads to fill up by 8:00 am and entrance lines into the park to backup for 2-3 miles, especially on the weekends. Campground reservations fill up six months out and backcountry wilderness permits can be very hard to come by. With already scarce resources and very limited funding, Park management has struggled with how to balance protecting and maintaining the parks treasured resources with the ever-increasing rise in visitation. Fast forward to Spring 2020.
Coronavirus/COVID-19 changed all of our lives, seemingly overnight. Many of us around the world were placed on strict social distancing orders. Schools closed. Economies devastated. Hospitals overwhelmed. Loved ones lost. The day to day routines we once knew were uprooted. In the United States many of our National Parks were also closed at the recommendation of The White House and Centers for Disease Control. This included Rocky Mountain National Park. On March 20th, 2020 the park was closed to all public access. When I received the news, my heart sank. For the past few years, I have visited the park, on average, 2-3 times per month, year-round. I very much look forward to and thrive on chasing sunrise on the shores of the park’s many beautiful alpine lakes on Sunday mornings. Rocky was closed for 9 weeks; I was away for 12 long weeks. With the long-awaited announcement of the re-opening of the park, also came the announcement of major changes to the way entrance into the park will work, at least for the Summer 2020 season. More on details on those changes that in a minute. The park re-opened on May 27th 2020. I had to try to be one of the first ones back in. It is important to note here that in its normal operation you can access the park 24/7.
On the morning of May 27th my alarm went off at 3:00 am. I left my house at 3:15. It was the day, my return to Rocky. I was so excited; I barley slept a wink. I planned to catch sunrise at Sprague Lake, a most favorite. I was at the main entrance to the park just after 4:00 am and the blockades were still up. I quickly thought to drive around to the other entrance gate, only to run into those blockades still up too. I was super disappointed, as I knew I had limited time before I had to be at a work meeting in town at 8:00 and couldn’t just wait around. I decided to head to another favorite sunrise spot close by, knowing I could come back up and try again in a few days. While at my backup sunrise spot, around 5:30 am I started to hear and read the gates to the park would be opening at 6:00. You guessed it, I quickly rushed back over to the park. However, by 5:40 am the line to get into the park was already backed way, way up. Again, being time limited, I could not wait. For the second time that morning, I was crushed. But wait! It hit me, I knew a spot where I could park and walk into the park. I love you all, but I won’t give this one away, so please don’t ask. After a little hike, I was in, I made it back into the park. The grass was so green, the birds were chirping, the river was dancing, and the elk were grazing in the meadow. It was almost as if the park was re-energized, quite literally breathing a breath of fresh air. I firmly believe she needed and enjoyed the break from years and years of increased visitation. I was able to spend about 45 minutes enjoying the moment and the morning. Although it was not my original plan, it was perfect!
Only five short days later I was able to return to the park for my treasured Sunrise Sundays. I met a friend at 4:00 am and we were in the park and at Sprague Lake by 5:00. The colors started off very soft and I was not sure we were going to get much of a show. Just a moment later, the colors popped! They were some of the most vibrant pinks, purples and oranges I had ever seen in the Colorado sky. It was simply magical, the perfect first sunrise back in one of my most cherished places.
Back to the changes on the park’s entrance system. The National Park Service obtained approval from the Department of the Interior to implement a timed entry reservation system for Rocky Mountain National Park. The intent of the new system according to the official park website is, “To increase park access while providing the public a reasonable opportunity to comply with health guidelines.” The timed entry reservation system started on June 4th. Park Superintendent Darla Slides added, “This system will more safely manage the pace and flow of visitor use, reduce crowding, and provide an improved visitor experience in alignment with the park’s safe operational capacity.” Pre-payment of entrance fees, limited visitor-staff contact and decreased parking lot congestion are other hoped for benefits of the new system. This initial phase allows for 60% of the parks maximum parking capacity. Allowing for an estimated 13,500 visitors per day. (www.nps.gov/romo/timedentry) Reservations will be required between 6:00 am and 5:00 pm. Please note, same day reservations will not be available at this time.
Visitors to the park will need to make and purchase their reservations on www.recreation.gov. It is a user-friendly experience and only takes a couple minutes. You do have to create a user account. There is a small $2 fee for each reservation made. Visitors must still also purchase a park entrance pass. For more information about entrance fees you can visit, https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/fees.htm. Annual and other pass holders can enter their pass numbers at the time of making a reservation and only pay the $2 fee. The current reservation window is open until July 31. On July 1st reservations will open for the month of August. On August 1st spots for September will open up. Finally, on September 1st the window for October reservations will open. The reservations provide for a two-hour entry block. Visitors can enter the park at any time during their two-hour window. You can stay as long as you wish. You can re-enter the park if you leave as long as it is on the same day.
Wanting to take some friends who are not early risers into the park on June 9th allowed me the opportunity to test out the new reservation system. I made my reservation a few days prior to our visit. Our time block was for 8:00-10:00 am. We arrived at 8:45 am and arrived, very surprisingly, to no lines at the entrance gates. I simply showed the ranger my email confirmation and off we went to our hike to Alberta Falls. On our way out, we did notice a short line at the gates, but nothing like you would typically see during a summer day at Rocky Mountain National Park.